What can make the adolescent passage really painful is when young people are inclined to be very hard on themselves after some frustration or disappointment with themselves.
At this point, a young person may attack themselves with angry words: “I’ll never learn!” “I’m so stupid!” “I can’t do anything right!” Or: “No one likes me!” “I don’t have any friends!” “I’m such a reject!”
When parents hear their adolescent daughter or son berating themselves in this manner, they should pay attention because there is some serious mistreatment going on. At the least, the young person is behaving in a counterproductive manner (nothing is helped) and at the most in a self-harmful one (further hurt is incurred.)
They are also behaving illogically and unethically. What is the sense of making feeling bad more painful? What good comes from that? Wouldn’t it make better sense to treat oneself well during a disappointing time in order to generate the positive energy for recovery and feeling better? Morally, do they believe it's right to beat up on a person who is down?
However, the youthful response to this question is often an interesting one. It turns out in many cases that doing badly, or not doing as well as they wanted, triggers a belief that they deserve the ill-treatment they are self-inflicting. They feel obliged to get down on themselves.
“Where did you learn to criticize yourself for things going wrong or doing something wrong?” I ask. And the answer often is: “From my parents, when I messed up.”
That’s the lesson the adolescent took out of childhood when mistakes or misdeeds occurred. How they were treated by parents on these occasions was internalized, and now the adolescent continues this parental practice on his or her own behalf.
After a perceived failure of any kind, big or small, payment in the form of self-punishment must be made. Thus the parental rule of ‘judge and punish’ carries on.
This is when I suggest that when suffering a disappointment the young person may want to treat herself differently than she was parented. “Invest your energy in putting yourself right; don’t waste it in putting yourself down. Making more misery won’t make things any better.”
But some young people seem wired to be hard on their selves. They are never content with how well they perform because they could always improve, they are intolerant of any missteps or mishaps because they should have known better, and they frequently fall short in their eyes because of holding themselves to unreachable account.
In some cases, they may have learned this from having a parent whom one could never please, who believed criticism was the best motivation, who felt that expressing satisfaction only undermined the desire for further effort.
In a lot of cases, however, getting down on themselves may arise at the young person’s initiation. By choosing to subscribe to unrealistic set of expectations, they set themselves up for let downs that become more likely to occur. In this case, parents have a role in helping the adolescent create a more moderate set of expectations that are more merciful to live with.
They can begin doing this by helping the adolescent consider six common triggers for getting down on oneself in adolescence, and ask the young person which ones are the worst for them.
1) Losing a contest. Thinks the adolescent: “I have to win or else I’m a loser.” So losing a match or race or game is losing face, and maybe a loss of temper with oneself may follow. Now parents can talk to them about the realities of competition. “In life, no one gets to have nothing but a winning record or gets to always play on the victorious side. Best to expect that you will win some and lose some.”
2) Making a mistake. Thinks the adolescent: “I have to get things right.” So getting something wrong is a shortcoming, and maybe feels like something is wrong with them. Now parents can talk to them about the realities of imperfection. “In life, people make a lot of blunders; that is their human lot. Best to expect that much of what you learn will be from the errors of your ways.”
3) Failing to perform well. Thinks the adolescent: “I have to be a success.” So falling short or doing less than great is not good enough, and maybe causes shame for not doing better. Now parents can talk about the realities of ambition. “In life, you control effort, not outcome. Best to expect that even after a full faith effort, the result is not entirely up to you.”
4) Getting in trouble. Thinks the adolescent: “I have to be a good person.” So wrong doing makes one a bad person, and maybe feels like inflicting lasting damage. Now parents can talk about goodness. “In life, no one is so good they don’t get caught committing some wrongs. Best to expect infractions, and after taking responsibility and paying your dues, forgive yourself for your misdeeds and move on.”
5) Getting criticized. Thinks the adolescent: “I have to be well thought of.” So being teased or made fun of means a person is inadequate or inferior, and maybe will never be liked. Now parents talk about reputation. “In life no one is universally admired. Best to expect that you will get mixed reviews.”
6) Being left out. Thinks the adolescent: “I must belong everywhere and be part of everything.” So being excluded means that not everyone wants my company, and maybe one will always me an outsider and a misfit. Now parents talk about popularity. “In life everyone has some experience with social rejection. Best to expect that you will not be invited or included in every group you would like to join.”
When any of these unhappy events occur, parents can help the teenager learn from hard adolescent experience an acceptance of some painful facts of grown-up life. “Losing at competition, making mistakes, failing to perform well, acting wrong, receiving criticism, being excluded: nobody likes these experiences, but they happen to everyone at every age. Bad as you may feel on these occasions, they are not good times to beat up on yourself and make hurt feelings worse. These are times to be gentle with yourself and treat yourself well so you can recover from what happened and start feeling better.”
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Management of Parental Love